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Life and Work: Is Sitting the New Smoking?

The long hours many of us spend sitting are not considered unusual, but neither was smoking until the data on the health hazards became accepted as irrefutable.
Life And Work: Is Sitting The New Smoking?

How many hours do you sit in a day? Don’t forget to count your commute, running errands, and taking kids to school in addition to sitting at work and relaxing in the evening at home. If you add up all the minutes, it’s probably more than you think — even if you achieved your goal number of steps on that day!

You may have heard the expression “sitting is the new smoking.” This phrase was coined by James Levine, M.D., Ph.D., president of Foundation Ipsen and former director of the Obesity Solutions Institute at the Mayo Clinic at Arizona State University. Dr. Levine came up with this comparison because we’re seeing more and more people spending time sitting rather than moving. Many sources estimate that Americans are sitting six to eight hours a day on average.

This excessive sitting is impacting people negatively just as smoking has over the years. According to the American Heart Association, sedentary jobs have increased 83% since 1950, and Johns Hopkins Medicine said that “physically active jobs now make up less than 20% of the U.S. workforce, down from roughly half of jobs in 1960.” Not only do U.S. workers move less on average, but our children do as well. My own children play video games, watch television, or surf the web instead of playing outside as I did as a child, and I know that this is the typical experience among their peers.

As more people become less physically active, the risk of health issues increases. For instance, it is believed that people who are less physically active are at a greater risk of obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, and decreased body muscle.

In my SWE Magazine Fall 2017 article, “Tips for Remote Employees,” I pointed out that I was averaging only around 400 steps by lunchtime unless I made a conscious effort to move. Shortly after writing the article, I began experiencing issues as a result of not moving enough. For instance, my neck was becoming locked because I rarely was looking side to side at home despite having a sit/stand desk. My hips also started having pain because my legs weren’t moving enough, and my hip flexors were tight.

This happened despite the fact that, as I mentioned in the same article, I had purchased a portable elliptical machine. I found that I couldn’t use it very often because my colleagues would hear me sound winded on calls or see me bob up and down on the video. Because I ended up frequently explaining what I was doing (since it was odd behavior for the workplace), I use the portable elliptical machine only if I’m watching a training video, on a call where I don’t have to speak, or while watching television in the evening. While an 800-step average by 5 p.m. is still the norm for me three years later, I must continue to make a conscious effort to move. I now go to the gym five days a week on average and focus on other types of movement throughout the workday.

If you feel you aren’t moving enough, there are things you can do to move more during the workday:

  • Have “walking” 1:1s. When the workplace returns to normal and we are not engaged in social distancing, ask your colleagues to take a walk for your 1:1 if you don’t need to look at a screen for the conversation. When you are having 1:1 calls with colleagues, plan a scheduled walking time where both of you walk. I do that with one of my colleagues who works in another state. As long as we don’t need to look at a screen for the conversation, we both get to exercise, and we don’t mind hearing the occasional car in the background.
  • Stand up and walk around for five minutes every hour or 10 minutes every two hours.
  • Again, when we no longer need to practice social distancing, schedule a walking time with friends first thing in the morning, over lunch, or in the evening. One of my colleagues in India schedules a 30-minute walk first thing in the morning with others. They all have a long commute of at least one hour, and the walk helps them get energized and ready for the day. Plus, they are usually discussing work topics!
  • Alternate between standing and sitting during your meetings.
  • Especially for the remote employee, be sure to turn your head side to side and move your shoulders in addition to walking.
  • Park near the back of the lot whenever you can to get a few extra steps in.
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Set an alarm on your cell phone to remind you it’s time to move.
  • Do simple stretches. Following are some examples you can do almost anywhere.

Please note that the information below is published in good faith and for general information purposes only. It is not intended to be comprehensive, and the authors, editors, and publisher are not responsible for errors or omissions.*

For best results, repeat these stretches throughout the day after light movement, such as standing or walking. For example, you can make it a habit to do these stretches whenever you return from refilling your water bottle or using the restroom. Each stretch can be held for 30-60 seconds.

Lastly, don’t be discouraged if you feel you are currently sitting too much. Start with baby steps and you’ll get there. Investing in you is worth it!

*Any action you take upon the information you find in SWE Magazine, the Society of Women Engineers’ website, or the All Together site is strictly at your own risk. SWE Magazine and the Society of Women Engineers will not be responsible for any losses and/or damages in connection with these exercises.


1A To get into the hip stretch, place the ankle of one leg across the other as shown. Let the leg open naturally, without pressing or forcing the knee down.
1B To intensify the stretch, gently hinge forward with a flat back.
1C To get into the back stretch from here, sit tall with an elongated spine and gently twist toward the side of the raised leg, placing one hand on the back of the chair and the other on the outside of the leg as shown. To get out of the stretch, first release the twist to come back to center, then place the leg back on the floor. Repeat on the other side.


Life And Work: Is Sitting The New Smoking?

2 Come to the edge of your seat and straighten your legs forward with heels on the ground and feet flexed upward. Maintain a slight bend in the knee, and hinge forward with a flat back. Increase the bend in the knee if needed to avoid rounding your back as you reach forward.





3A To get into the shoulder stretch, lean back in your chair and roll your shoulders back and down, feeling your shoulder blades squeeze toward each other. Then, clasp your hands together behind you or grab a cloth or towel between both hands if it feels more comfortable.
3B To get into a neck stretch from here, gently turn your head to one side.
3C Release out of the stretch slowly by returning to face forward, and repeat on the other side.


4A Interlace your fingers together in front of you, and keep your hands clasped together while you slowly roll one wrist over the other in a figure-eight motion. Make 3 to 5 circles in one direction and then reverse the direction.
4B Reach your arms straight out like a T-shape and roll your shoulders back and down. You may keep your hands open or create loose fists with your hands. Slowly rotate your arms forward so that your palms face upward, gently rolling out the wrists if desired.
4C Then, slowly rotate your arms so that your palms face downward, gently rolling out the wrists if desired.

Lynda Grindstaff, F.SWE, is a vice president of engineering with McAfee. An active SWE Fellow and senior life member, she is the past chair of the editorial board and has been recognized by the Society as an Emerging Leader and Prism Award recipient.

Sarvenaz Myslicki has been an active SWE member for more than 10 years. She has held leadership positions at the section and Society levels and currently serves as chair-elect of the editorial board. A vice president of engineering at American Express, she holds a B.S. and M.S. in computer science, as well as an executive MBA.

“Life and Work: Is Sitting the New Smoking?” was written by Lynda Grindstaff, F.SWE, SWE Editorial Board. This article appears in the 2020 spring issue of SWE Magazine.

Images by Sarvenaz Myslicki, SWE Editorial Board.

Read more from the 2020 spring issue of SWE Magazine: